You can’t beat the excitement of going somewhere you’ve never been. To explore, dream, discover. I don’t think that thrill will ever fade. It’s probably a common feeling amongst all of us who yearn to travel, to chase the horizon, to see the world.
But what does differ is the way we choose to experience the destination. I certainly like to see the things that I know I will see, the famous sights, the iconic bits and pieces that demonstrate to you exactly where you are in the world. You might call them clichés, but I’m a sucker for them anyways. Especially if they involve food… Naples, for example, the home of pizza, did not disappoint with some phenomenally simple but succulent offerings.
Wherever I find myself, I also like to wander off the tourist trail. To follow my nose through the winding streets of someone else’s normality. Ordinary life feels extraordinary in a place that’s new. I revel in getting lost amidst the noise and smells and crowds of buzzing, busy cities.
In all my years of wanderings, this has been one of the constants. To be out on the streets at dawn, walking and walking and walking. Looking in doorways, hoovering up the minutiae of daily life, eavesdropping on conversations in foreign tongues that I imagine to be far more interesting than they probably are. (I remember once, after a couple of years in foreign-speaking lands, arriving in America and being crushed by how mundane all the stuff I could now understand actually was!)
I wouldn’t actually want to live in a city so overflowing with noise and clutter and character (and rubbish and piss-soaked alleys) but, as a travel addict, places like Naples give me the strongest hit – a hefty fix of life being lived loud and different – with all my senses on overload and my mind bubbling with the excitement of it all.
But! But I also want to explore away from the cities and the sights and the people. When I’m in cities these days I always raise my eyes to the horizon and search for mountains. One of the worst things about London is that you can’t see a single far blue mountain when you’re down amongst its streets. That’s certainly not the case in Naples. Mount Vesuvius looms above the city. It should, perhaps, feel like a brooding, sinister presence given that at some time in the future it will erupt again and destroy the entire city. But that is unlikely any time soon, and I personally found the sight of the natural world poking up above the grubby concrete to be quite cheering.
Replete with pizza, I pushed out of the city crowds and set off to climb Vesuvius. I filled my lungs with mountain air. I love how it smells different whichever country you’re in. Here, in the lowland forests, it was spring greenery and new growth oaks. Higher up, out on the volcano flanks, the air was hot and dry and dusty. It felt good to be up here, above those crowded city streets.
I’ve learned, wherever I am in the world, that adventure and wilderness are always closer than you might realise. You can’t beat seeing massive landscapes that make you say ‘wow’. Spectacular places I’ll remember for years to come. Vesuvius’ crater was considerably bigger, deeper, more powerful than I had considered. Poor Pompeii, down there below me on the flanks of the volcano, stood no chance. (If the eruption happened today, the obliteration of so many lives would horrify me, of course. But as I walked the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, I felt too far removed in time to feel any sadness. And all I could feel was awe at seeing history so fresh and admiration at the state of their civilisations.)
Perhaps the greatest travel discovery I have made, however, is simpler than any of this. It was the realisation of how easy it is to step away from tourist itineraries, to leave the beaten path and to escape the frantic pace of normal life. In many of the places I visit, my most cherished memory is climbing to the top of some un-named, deserted hill, and claiming the view and the sunset and the solitude all to myself.
I descended Vesuvius, leaving the noisy school trips, the selfie couples and the puffing pensioners behind. And I struck out on my own, following my nose through a forest, across a contorted lava field, up a ridiculously slidy scree slope (1 step forwards, 1 step backwards), into and then out of (just) a Gordian knot of brambles and finally a two-hands-two-feet-two-knees-too-much-swearing rock climb. I emerged onto a ridge, an ancient volcanic rim, just in time for the sunset. I was sweaty, scratched, knackered, and very happy.
You don’t have to seek out a distant wilderness to be awed by the world’s beauty. You don’t have to spend a fortune for a penthouse view and 5-million star decadence. No hotel can match the atmosphere and majesty of a night up here, listening to the chirping birds and the muffled cathedral bells and police sirens far below. I feasted (if feasted is the right word, and I believe that it is) on hardboiled eggs and Parma ham purloined from the hotel breakfast buffet. And then I climbed into my bivvy bag and fell asleep as the full moon rose above Vesuvius. This, I know, I will remember and treasure.
And a nice thing about microadventures such as this is that you can easily run down your hill, as the sun rises and sparkles through the springtime forests, and go find a cafe for breakfast. I was helped with a lift on the back of the local dustcart – one of the most fun, but smelliest hitch-hikes of my life!